Thursday, August 23, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - A Discovery/Exploration

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join in the fun by picking three movies that fit the week's theme and writing a bit about them!

This week on Thursday Movie Picks, we're going exploring! Let's see what we can find, shall we?

The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2017) One of the most beautiful films of 2017, The Lost City of Z is based on the true story of explorer Percy Fawcett, a British officer tasked with surveying the border between Bolivia and Bravil in 1905. While on his journey, he hears tell of a mythical city covered in gold, and finds some artifacts that make him believe it. He returns to South America over and over again in his life trying to find it, eventually bringing his eldest son with him. Dealing as much with the home lives of British Imperialism as with the exploration of the South American rain forest, Gray's film is often fascinating, if a bit frustrating. But the cinematography is stunning, and the performances, from Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Angus McFadyen, and even Sienna Miller, as Fawcett's wife.

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, 2016) Yes, it seems almost cruel to shoot a film about the glorious scenery of the Amazon in black and white, but just wait until you see this. The cinematography becomes utterly hypnotic, which is appropriate for the tale of two white explorers, thirty years apart, searching for a rare sacred plant with hallucinogenic powers. The stories are connected by one Amazonian native, Karamakate, and the film has a lot of very wise things to say about aging and regret, as well as imperialism and the nature of man to explore and his desire to rule. One of my all-time favorite cinema experiences, I remember being so stunned when I left the theater that I had to keep my phone off and just wander the streets for a good couple of hours while I digested this.

Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014) A bit of a change of pace here, to outer space exploration. Nolan's grand epic offers (again) astonishing cinematography (although the constantly-shifting aspect ratios in IMAX 70mm drive me absolutely insane) and wonderful performances from its all-star cast, but it doesn't quite hold together. The bloated run-time and grandiose ambitions don't help, but what's really at fault here is the somewhat meandering screenplay, which is a really good second or third draft but needed some editing and a polish in order to become the best version of itself. It's a tremendous visual experience, but ultimately an almost-but-not-quite for me.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Thursday Movie Picks - Non-English Language Movies

Written as part of the weekly blogathon hosted by Wandering Through the Shelves. Join our motley crew by picking three movies that fit the theme of the week and writing a bit about them!

Hello all! I'M BACK! It's been a busy few weeks here at Chez Dan, but I'm finally over the hump and ready to start picking films again.

And what a week to do it! The theme is the wonderfully broad Non-English Language Movies, and oh my word there are such a wealth of options that I almost don't know what to do with myself! While it would be very easy to go classic here, I'm choosing instead to go modern. So many great foreign films get buried these days for a million reasons, and they really shouldn't. So trust me on these: Deal with the subtitles and watch them. You won't be disappointed.

The Mermaid (Stephen Chow, 2016) It's not surprising that this bizarre rom-com/fantasy/sci-fi/musical/comedy/drama didn't make one tenth of what it made at home in the US. Like I said, it's a pretty bizarre movie. But it's our loss, really, because this is one of the most entertaining films of the aughts. Effortlessly shifting tones and blending together just about every genre under the sun, The Mermaid is a delight from beginning to end. The basic plot is this: A playboy business tycoon buys an area of ocean called the Green Gulf. It's a wildlife reserve, but his company has placed sonar devices in the water to push all the aquatic life out, so that they can use it for other things. Unbeknownst to him, that happens to be the home of a clan of merpeople, and after many of them begin to get sick and die from the sonar, they decide to send one of their own, who can walk and dance on her fins, to seduce and kill him in revenge. But of course, the two end up falling in love. I can't accurately describe what happens from there without just listing off all the funny, crazy, and wonderful things that happen along the way, but suffice it to say, I had a better time watching The Mermaid than I did most American blockbusters.

The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook, 2016) If you've been reading my blog for a while, you may remember that The Handmaiden was all over my personal awards for 2016, and I stand by every single one of them. Park Chan-Wook took Sarah Waters's Victorian England-set crime novel and dialed everything up to eleven, making one of the most beautiful, brilliant, thrilling films in recent memory. Moving the setting to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea, The Handmaiden follows the story of a pickpocket named Sook-hee, plucked from a makeshift family of thieves by a con-man posing as "Count Fujiwara" to help him seduce a Japanese heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee, giving an incredibly complex performance). But as she becomes Lady Hideko's handmaiden, Sook-hee starts to fall for her mistress. And that's just the film's opening act. The film is broken into three parts, each told from a different character's perspective, each one more twisted and jaw-dropping than the last. A total feast for the eyes and ears, The Handmaiden is a sensual ravishment unlike anything you've ever seen. You won't be able to look away as it just gets crazier and crazier.

Neomanila (Mikhail Red, 2017) If you can find a way to watch this, DO IT. Much lower profile than the other two films I mentioned (I only saw it by chance with a friend at this year's Asian Film Festival at Lincoln Center), this is a really well-done, character-driven thriller set in the heart of the drug war in the Philippines. It's about Toto, a young teenage orphan whose brother is in jail. The local drug gang his brother was a part of pledges to help Toto raise bail money, but only tortures the poor kid. He then gets taken under the wing of Irma, a leader of one of Manila's most notorious death squads that target drug dealers. The pace is on the slower side in between the terrifically-directed thriller scenes, but it offers a great window on what life is like in this part of the world, as well as some wonderfully moving character beats. Eula Valdez, who plays Irma, gives a fantastic performance that (in a just world) should get her tons of even better roles across the globe. Irma is a complex, complicated character, and Valdez isn't afraid to dig in to even the ugliest places in her psyche. She makes a fateful decision near the end of the film that took my breath away, and is even more impactful for just how she plays it. A gem of a film that I'm glad to have seen, and am happy to spread the word about.